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City water system in a fix

Leo W. Burroughs Jr. called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other top city officials “cowardly” in response to a plan to hike water rates in Baltimore by 37 percent over the next three years.

Officials cite crumbling infrastructure like a rusted, crusty pipe brought to Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting for water-main breaks such as the one that occurred at 20th and Charles streets in November.

“Your cowardly conduct is a local, state and national disgrace,” Burroughs told the city’s Board of Estimates Wednesday during a combative hearing on the planned rate increases expected to be voted on next week.

He joined nearly two dozen city residents and two City Council members to argue against imposing the higher water rates, set to phase in at 15 percent, 11 percent and 11 percent over the next three years.

Frank M. Conaway Sr., a former mayoral candidate and clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, threatened to file a lawsuit against the city aimed at forcing top officials to collect on delinquent water bills from nonprofits and corporations, including the Maryland Zoo, RG Steel and W.R. Grace & Co., that total more than $10 million, according to a recent report in The Sun.

“You make it hard for the little man to get ahead,” he said. “I urge you to vote against this water tax. We can do better.”

Rudy Chow, director of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater for the city Department of Public Works, said the rate hikes were needed to help pay to replace aged infrastructure and underground pipes, some 100 years old. He blamed a series of recent devastating water main breaks and raw sewage spills on the crumbling infrastructure.

“Under the [rate hike] plan, we expect the typical family to pay less than $8 per month more, and we’ll deliver great value for their money,” Chow told the board.

He pointed to a poster that showed the city lost on average 36 million gallons of water daily through leaks in the system and water-main breaks. An aide wheeled in a cart with two large, rusted-out former city water pipes to illustrate his point.

“This is what is underground,” Chow said. “They are serving your homes.”

Rhonda Wimbush, a community activist who in 2011 helped to blow the whistle on severe dysfunction in the DPW’s water meter reading and billing system, which showed gross errors and overcharges on residential bills, called out from her seat that Chow’s show of the decrepit pipes was “a scam.”

Phyllis Shipley, who lives on Wilkens Avenue on the city’s West Side, brought her $634.17 residential water bill in to help protest the rate hikes.

“I have had plumbers in to try to find out why this bill is so high. I have called and called the city,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

City resident and political consultant Julius Henson also protested the hikes, asking the panel: “Did this honorable board spend two minutes looking into alternatives? We have a culture here in Baltimore — tax, tax, tax, fees, fees, fees.”

After the contentious testimony, City Comptroller Joan Pratt made a motion to delay a vote on the rate hikes until her auditors had an opportunity to analyze data on city water costs and dysfunctional meters. Her motion failed after Rawlings-Blake, City Solicitor George Nilson and DPW Director Alfred H. Foxx voted it down.

“This is appalling,” Pratt said after the meeting. “This board would not take the time to consider whether this rate increase is justifiable. The message from today is we’re going to do it and it’s final. It’s a done deal.”

At a news conference minutes later, Rawlings-Blake responded to the anger and lack of confidence in local government expressed by residents during the hearing.

“I heard that,” she said. “Anytime that we talk about increasing fees and people are struggling, I know it’s frustrating … but we have to make tough decisions in order to change the financial future of our city.”

Burroughs, though, seemed unimpressed. As chairman of the grassroots Committee of Concerned Citizens, he reflected on the public hearing later Wednesday with disgust.

“She is as insensitive as a door. She can’t relate to ordinary people,” he said of Rawlings-Blake. “I think it’s a continuing scenario of indifference on the part of the mayor and her henchmen thumbing their noses at the poor and the middle class.”